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Caring for our Common Home; prioritising action over introspection

Reflection By David Moloney, Seaford Housing Action Coalition (SHAC)
August 2019
In his encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes: Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal. [202]

Since its release in 2015, the challenge has been how to implement the call to action within Laudato Si’, practically – within our homes, our work and social spaces, and within our Church and parish communities.  Catholic Social Services has for a number of years been trying to assist Catholic parishes in the Melbourne archdiocese to practically respond.

A number of forums have been held inviting parish leaders and members to join together to consider how we can all better care for our common home, the Earth. Another of these parish forums will take place on Saturday 14 September 2019 at St Ambrose Centre, 259A Sydney Road, Brunswick. The forum will identify practical actions that can be taken by individuals, families and our parishes; it will outline processes for initiating and maintaining parish engagement with the encyclical and will assist parish communities to join with others to form a network of response to ‘Care for our Common Home’.

In preparing for the upcoming forum, I read an article by William Ng OFM, recently published in La Croix. The author considers the essential link between personal spiritual formation and social transformation on the particular issue of ‘ecology’. I might be wrong – I’m not sure he explicitly states this – but the presumption seems to me to be that the ‘profound interior conversion’ comes first, and is followed by ‘the result’, which is the ‘relationship with the world around us’ (aka ‘doing something’).
‘Without such an interior change of heart and mind’, he says, ‘there can be no profound external change of lifestyle …’.  And then, ‘the why’ is more essential than the ‘how’. And … ‘in order to change the way we act, we need a change of heart – a conversion.’ The article then concludes with Pope Francis’ four abstract indicators of or pointers to such a personal ecological conversion. 
I don’t think I’m being heretical or disagreeing with the author or the Pope in adding some thoughts:
1. Spiritual enlightenment and/or abstract understanding can, but does not need to, come first.  In fact I would say that for 95% of people it is the experience – life – that comes first.  For example, we discover love not through reading encyclicals, spiritual books, meditating, or even being baptised or reading the gospel. We discover love by experiencing it, as most of us have, from the cradle.  This concrete experience encourages us to look further, deeper, to become conscious of bigger things.
2. And then we try this thing called love ourselves, and it is a revelation.  We discover and want to understand more.  We look to other peoples’ ideas about love, we read the gospels and so on.
3. It is an iterative process. For most of us (St Paul etc excepted) the ‘profound interior conversion’ occurs progressively.  We question, we do some little action, we reflect, we pray, we try something a little bigger, we think we have discovered something, we ask more questions, we check the gospel, we talk with our peers, we do something bigger again. 
I’ve reframed the author a bit, but if its true that he does effectively presume, or could even be interpreted as presuming, a chronological priority of the spiritual/enlightenment over the action/actual, the ‘why’ over the ‘how’, this is very problematic in my view.  There is no need to reach a deep interior conversion or perfect enlightenment before we act. 
I’m not a special fan of up-and-coming US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but her conversation with Greta Thunberg produced a pearl, I thought: ‘Hope is something that you create, by your actions’.
From there I learned that hope is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create, with your actions. Hope is something you have to manifest into the world, and once one person has hope, it can be contagious. Other people start acting in a way that has more hope.’

A Christian might say ‘faith’ + ‘love’ (action) = ‘hope’. To which I would add a bit of Confucius: ‘I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand’. 
And a little of the Cardijn school: ‘formation through action’. The ‘action-reflection’ model. The YCW (Patrick Keegan) said:  ‘Each step is an advance into the unknown and each step is an invitation to a further commitment’.
Teilhard de Chardin was more poetic on this ‘divinisation of human activity’:
each reality attained and left behind gives us access to the discovery and pursuit of an ideal of higher spiritual content. … The more nobly a man wills and acts, the more avid he becomes for great and sublime aims to pursue. … He will want wider organisations to create, new paths to blaze, causes to uphold, truths to discover, an ideal to cherish and defend. So, gradually, the worker no longer belongs to himself. Little by little the great breath of the universe has insinuated itself into him through the fissures of his humble but faithful action, has broadened him, raised him up, borne him on.’
My hope is that our parish forum on Caring for our Common Home prioritises action over introspection, be that personal, or of Pope Francis’s abstractions.  Whatever reason a person comes for, it’s enough. Just an inkling, a spark, even of the most profane nature, might start a journey that will continue beyond our imagination, for a lifetime and beyond.

Find out more about the upcoming parish forum on 14 September in East Melbourne, here.

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